Mickey Rourke, Part 2: Actor vs. director
When "The Wrestler" director Darren Aronofsky decided he wanted to go ahead with the film, he remembers having a casting epiphany: The actor who'd be absolutely perfect for the part of an over-the-hill wrestler would be ... Mickey Rourke. Most directors would've immediately run to their shrink and confessed that they had a career death wish. Mickey Rourke? The famously unruly, unreliable, uncontrollable motorcycle-riding madman? Aronofsky knew what he was getting himself into.
"All my friends said, 'No way, you can't do this. You can't make a movie where the whole film depends on Mickey,' " Aronofsky told me yesterday. But the hard-headed director set up a meeting with the actor anyway. "I was very honest with him, like you'd be in a marriage. We looked each other in the eye and I said, 'This is a purely artistic venture. There's no money.' But if he would show up, if he really, really wanted the chance to be a lead in a film again, I wanted to do it with him."
Of course, Rourke remembers the encounter a bit differently. "I was sitting in a restaurant in the West Village that my friend Julian Schnabel turned me on to and this guy shows up, riding a bicycle, with this green helmet and an unbelievably dorky outfit. And I go, 'That must be him. Darren Aronofsky--smart Jewish boy from Brooklyn." Rourke unleashes a derisive snort. "Darren has got to be the worst dresser on the planet. That outfit! He told me it was Prada, but all I could think was--he looks like a UPS delivery guy."
Rourke says Aronofsky didn't waste any time getting to the point. "There were no formalities. He said 'You've been difficult.' I nodded my head. He said, 'You've thrown your career away.' I nodded my head. Whatever he said, I agreed. He tried to make me feel 2 inches tall. He raised his voice and he pointed his finger at me and said, 'You can never disrespect me. You can never [mess] around with girls at night. You can't go to Miami over the holidays because I know you'll be out partying every night. And by the way, I can't pay you because we have no money.' "
Rourke laughs. "That's how bad my career had gotten. I had to listen to all that crap and take it. I kept thinking, 'This guy must really be talented'--I'm leaving out a few choice profanities that Rourke used for emphasis--'to get away with talking to me that way.' But it was OK. I like a guy that's honest from the start. We never had a problem."
But why didn't Rourke butt heads with Aronofsky, the way he did with so many other directors?
Rourke says Aronofsky's self-confidence won him over. "That very first day we met, he said, 'I'll take you to the show. I'll get you a nomination for this part.' And after the first week of work, I believed him. He walked the walk and that got my respect. Darren is like a really demanding football coach, like Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry. He said, 'Give Rourke the ball' and I ran with it."
If Aronofsky thought Rourke needed a little extra motivation, he was not afraid to offer it. When Rourke was doing his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, the young actress who plays his daughter in the film, Aronofsky would heap praise on her performance. "Then he'd come over to me and say, 'You really sucked. She's totally smoking you. You better bring your A-game to this scene or she's gonna wipe the floor with you,' " Rourke says. "But let me tell you, I loved working with her. She's a real pro and she's going places. She's like Rita Hayworth. I wouldn't have a problem doing a scene with her on Mars."
Rourke had to undergo a grueling training regime to play the part--he says he did all of his wrestling stunts in the film. Even though he's a boxing fan, he now has renewed respect for the physical pounding wrestlers take every night in the ring. "The first time a 260-pound guy threw me across the ring, I knew I was in for it--every tooth in my mouth, the real and the fake ones, ached for days. I went to the chiropractor twice a week. I had three MRIs in two months. That stuff is not fake."
Rourke says his trainer was a former Israeli commando and ex-cage fighter. "He never let up on me. Under no circumstances could I say, 'I don't feel like training today.' He had a key to my hotel room. So even if I had three girls in my bed, it didn't matter. I had to work out. Luckily, he's very religious, so he always took the Sabbath off. That was the only time I got a break."
The critics will be swooning over Rourke's performance in "The Wrestler" for months to come. But I couldn't help but wonder--is this that once-in-a-lifetime performance? Or can Rourke keep his act together long enough to string together enough parts to put his career back on track? If anything could possibly explain the strange sensitivity of his psyche, it's his love for his Chihuahuas. He has six of them, but the one that seems to be a dog of truly Rourkian proportions is Jaws, also known as Little Mickey.
Rourke saved the dog from being put to sleep at an animal shelter. It had been badly abused and was totally uncontrollable, always foaming at the mouth and growling at anyone that tried to come near him. So of course, Rourke tried to give him a kiss. Jaws instantly bit Rourke in the mouth. "There was blood everywhere. It looked like I'd been hit by a car. I had to go get stitches. But I kept him. He just needed to trust someone. For the first few months, he had nightmares every night. When I'd be watching football, he'd jump on my bed and walk up and down my stomach, baring his teeth like he was Predator or something."
And then suddenly one day the dog calmed down and put his head on Rourke's shoulder. Mickey acts it out, reaching out and resting his head on my shoulder in the middle of the Four Seasons lobby. "I'm not saying he was totally normal," Rourke says. "In the winter, you still couldn't put a hoodie on him. And after he growled at everyone on the set, the PAs put a nice little sign up, saying 'Be Careful of White Dog in Mickey's Trailer.' But he wasn't so crazy anymore."
One day Rourke took the dog to meet his therapist. "My therapist said, in his very soft voice, 'Well, Mickey, why do you think you took to Jaws so well?' " Rourke laughs. "I think I've finally figured out what he means."
Photo of Darren Aronofsky, left, and Mickey Rourke by Joel Ryan / Associated Press